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“I know a place where there’s still something going on,” sings Bob Dylan on Love and Theft. The current tour proves him right. The place is wherever he and his crack band happen to be standing. What’s going on is the serious business of rock and roll, as conducted by an artist and a band at their peak.
On a Saturday night in early October, Dylan and company were standing in MacArthur Court, the ramshackle old basketball gym at the University of Oregon in Eugene. The near-capacity crowd was about equally divided between students and older fans. I sat next to a Vietnam vet who had last seen Dylan at the Concert for Bangla-Desh.
Dylan has opened most of his shows on recent tours with an acoutic number, a folk song like “Roving Gambler” or Duncan and Brady,” or a bluegrass gospel standard like “Somebody Touched Me” or “I Am the Man, Thomas.”
The current tour had opened in Seattle with “Solid Rock,” as “hard” a song as Dylan has ever recorded. In Eugene he strolled onstage in a 50s-looking white jacket, stood at an electronic piano, charged immediately into “Maggie’s Farm,” and kept going from there until it seemed the ancient wooden hall would literally explode during an astounding finale of “Summer Days,” with Dylan, Charlie Sexton and Larry Campbell all soloing in ensemble on electric guitars, huddled close together with bassist Tony Garnier and drummer George Receli as though trying just to survive the apocalyptic fury of it all.
It was that kind of night. This looks like it is going to be that kind of tour.
On “Just Like a Woman” and “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” Dylan played piano with one hand and harmonica with the other. “Tombstone Blues” and “It’s All Right Ma, I’m only Bleeding” appeared in radical new arangements, as though co-written not by Dylan but by Howling Wolf and Earl King.
There were three Warren Zevon covers, including “Mutineer,” one of the most deeply emotional moments I’ve ever experienced at a Dylan concert. Dylan sang with his full range (of voice as well as feeling), demonstrating that the shredded croak of “Time Out of Mind” is no closer to his “real” voice than was the milky croon of “Nashville Skyline.” (I have heard a demo of “Everything Is Broken” on which he sounds like the Dylan of 1966.)
When Dylan finally stepped away from the piano and strapped on an electric guitar, it was to give us a “Brown Sugar” that rocked, if anything, harder than the Stones. His playing on both electric and acoustic was wonderful, with none of the “clunkers” of previous shows.
It feels strange to write of an artist who emerged in the Sixties that the strongest moments (in both performance and crowd response) of his current show are provided by songs released in the year 2001, but that is the simple fact of the matter. With, say, Paul McCartney, people get up and go to the bathroom when he plays new material. At Dylan’s Eugene show, which included both “Watching the River Flow” and a chillingly beautiful “Senor,” the real highlights were “Honest With Me,” “Lonesome Day Blues,” “Moonlight” (yes, he hit all the notes) and “Summer Days.”
You wonder, almost, if the day will come when people complain about Dylan playing so many of his old songs. People all around me were hoping he would play “Things Have Changed.”
DAVID VEST writes the Rebel Angel column for CounterPunch. He is a poet and piano-player for the Pacific Northwest’s hottest blues band, The Cannonballs.
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Visit his website at http://www.rebelangel.com